Monthly Archives: January 2016

John Dee: The Royal Astrologer

John Dee

Paracelsus’ writings were widely available and almost certainly were owned by avid book collectors like John Dee, who was one of the major advisers and the personal astrologer to Queen Elizabeth I, as well as the first English astronomer to accept the ideas of Copernicus. He played no little role in introducing ideas about the various aspects of the new natural philosophy into British aristocratic circles and making natural philosophy fashionable among young gentlemen. It was at this time that aristocrats who had been collectors of art and antiquities developed an interest in the collection of natural curiosities. It has been argued that when Dee organized a kind of scientific academy made up of friends and other gentlemen to discuss natural science he began a tendency that culminated in the formation of the Royal Society in 1660. He was also the Royal Astrologer and associated himself with Edward Kelley a devotee of the more arcane aspects of magic, which resulted in accusations of illicit conjuring and led to Dee’s eventual downfall. Magic was widely desired and also widely feared. The consequence of his secret forays into magic certainly assured that Francis Bacon would take great care in distinguishing natural magic from dangerous conjuring. As we shall see the streams of magic and science persisted together through the Scientific Revolution from the time publication of Copernicus’s account of planetary rotation. We will look closely at the persistence of these views through the 17th century


Renaissance Anatomy

Leonardo Da Vinci Skull da vinci Baby davinci

Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519)

Leonardo da Vinci was supposed to publish a book of anatomical drawings with the anatomist Marcantonio della Torre, but della Torre died of the Black plague in 1511. Leonardo continued this work secretly because dissection was against the church’s teaching at the time. He dissected more than 30 bodies and amassed more than 750 anatomical drawings. However it is not clear if the drawings were ever published in book form. The ones that remain display Leonardo’s conviction that however illegal, dissection was necessary to gain a full understanding of the human body.

Vesalius von Gebweiler Skeleton

Andreas Vesalius (1514-1564) Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler,

Andreas Vesalius discovered that all of Galen’s anatomical studies were done on animals and not humans. As a result much of Galen’s understanding of the human body was skewed. Although his own dissections were not the first or even the most complete, the publication of Vesalius’ book De Humani corporis fabrica, (On the fabric of the human body,) which contained numerous anatomical illustrations, was very widely distributed in many different editions (some pirated). It set a new modern standard for anatomical depictions of the body, which were drawn by professional artists, not Vesalius himself. This was yet another step to amend the Galenic understanding of the human body.

In a rare instance for this period we still have the name of one of his human specimens. Jakob Karrer von Gebweiler was a notorious felon from Basel. After he was beheaded, Vesalius prepared and donated his skeleton to the University of Basel where it is displayed to this day.




ParacelsusParacelsus (1493-1541)

The Renaissance not only brought a new way of reading the Roman and Greek, classics, it also reintroduced hermetic writings about magic and a renewed interest in the Philosopher’s Stone. Paracelsus’ ideas about medicine and chemistry had vast influence in the Renaissance. He was violently opposed to the entire medical tradition of the mediaeval period. His full name is worth saying out loud: it is Theophrastus Bombastus von Hohenheim.  Paracelsus famously lost his job as municipal physician for burning Galenic books in the town square. He derided the academic doctors of his day for blindly following useless outmoded humoral practices based on Aristotle, Galen and Avicenna. For a long time Paracelsus’ influence on later thinking was neglected. However, it became clear in the 20th century that he exerted a major influence on the scientific practices of the 17th century. He was the father of iatrochemistry seeking medical solutions through chemical cures. Paracelsus considered the body to be something like a chemical retort in which food, liquids and air are processed into blood, muscle and various excreta. For him, a healthy person is someone in whom the necessary chemicals are present and the appropriate chemical reactions take place. Diseases are the result of either chemical imbalances or the introduction of poisons into the system. Once one had identified a particular disease, it would become possible to test and apply chemical treatments.

Paracelsus traveled across Europe introducing new chemical remedies. He is famously credited with introducing the use of mercury to reduce the side effects of syphilis – a remedy that was in use until the mid-20th century introduction of antibiotics.